Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 1, August 27, 1998



If this belief from Heaven be sent
If such be Nature's holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

  Conclusions drawn from this research will I trust, be a tribute to the 29 women generous enough to give their time and their life stories to help further knowledge of sexuality as it relates to former religious women.  Additionally, their understanding of the role spirituality played in their sexual development has been enlightening to me as I hope it will be to others.

  They are complex stories, sharing many commonalities but at the same time each with its own individual characteristics.  I was looking for common themes of attitudes among a group of women who voluntarily committed themselves to life-long celibacy and asceticism, and then made the transition back into secular life.  On a fundamental level I found that, from childhood on, there was a consistent and widespread attempt to repress sexuality.  From that followed my main conclusion, namely that one of the most cohesive bonds between all of the participants was the irrepressibility of their sexuality.

  A common theme in all the life histories was the childhood message (occasionally subtle, mostly adamant) that sex was something to be avoided, or even stronger.  Sex was wrong and bad.  It was to be feared.  It was (and still is for some) a source of shame, fear and guilt, or a combination of all three.  When reporting on shame and guilt surrounding sexuality, the data shows:
SHAME N = 46 N = 44 N = 44
Yes 61 48 25
GUILT N = 42 N = 42 N = 42
Yes 50 52 36

  Comparative data from Ellison & Zilbergeld (1994), when self reporting on their feelings following masturbation, showed that 21% of Catholic women experienced shame and guilt equally.  This compares to 15% of the general population of non-Catholic women who shared these feelings.  Since my data found that one third continued to feel guilt and 25% felt
shame around sexuality (not specifically masturbation), I construed there to be an indication that some of the old lessons were still being heard.  In my sample, masturbation was a sexual release, used infrequently by most that admitted to it at all.  Self-pleasure was the area the majority of women still had difficulty with at the time of our interviews.  The average age of first masturbatory experience from the wider data was 16 years.  Frequency was on average, once a month or less.  In the area of sexual repression leading to sexual expression, I would say for the above women, the repression began to ebb in the years
they were in the convent.  Vestiges of the old thinking were evident from Lisa and Stephanie when conflict and confusion was expressed around the area of masturbation and vows of chastity.  Significant in this was that both women deferred to priests for permission around this personal practice, and did not discuss it or look for support for their own sexuality from other women.

  In the stories there was no reference to fantasies before or during their entry to the convent.  After they left, three women spoke about this topic.  June talked about her bondage fantasy, which she was very attached to, and had no understanding of, except she felt it had a mystical quality.  Stephanie admitted to some fantasy around the young men she saw on the television or the football field.  Kathleen felt that she made her fantasy come true.  In her fantasy God told her she could marry her beloved friend in a spiritual union.  For this woman, sexuality and spirituality were totally entwined and she absolutely believed in the authenticity of the service she went through, which made her Laird's spiritual wife.  It brought her great happiness and peace in the marriage that was so unfulfilling for her.  In the questionnaire data, in all areas of sexual activity listed, there was a consistent increase in the numbers of women who fantasized as they transitioned into and out of religious life.

  When asked, how important was/is sex to you?  The responses were as recorded in the following table, showing a considerable increase in the importance of sexuality in their lives:
Very Important 18 16 41
Important 11 29 43
Slight Important 42 32 11
Not Important at  all 29 23 5

  When asked about sexual satisfaction and curiosity I wanted to understand their feelings relative to their perception of most women their age.  I asked, was/is your perception that you are: (1) Very much above average (2) About average (3) Somewhat below average (4) Very much below average.  The responses illustrated a steady increase in their perception of growth in those areas.  The tables below show an increase in number from before they entered to currently:
Very much above average 11 9 24
About average 20 20 43
Somewhat below average 29 27 20
Very much below average 40 43 13
Very much above average 11 11 22
About average 47 49 65
Somewhat below average 13 21 11
Very much below average 30 19 2

  A good indication of change and sexual growth throughout the transitions was indicated from the answers to the question asking if clergy should be allowed to marry:
YES 53 86 98


  All the questions with Before, During and After data, show an increase in number toward a more liberal, sexual tolerance.

  The data showed the minimum age for entering the convent was 16 years old, the average age being 19 years.  Of the interview group, only two women admitted to any consensual sexual experience prior to entering.  Both were self described child prostitutes although only Ann actually prostituted herself as a teenager for money.  Marian was sexually active but did not permit penis-vagina penetration until after she married.   All of the other participants denied being sexually active prior to entering, although most had dated in high school. Information in the wider data showed age for first heterosexual intercourse as:
less than 5 1 2
15-20 5 10
21-29 11 22
30-39 22 45
40-49 4 8
Never 6 12
Range = 4 – 47    Mean = 30

  Average age for first same sex experience was 27 years.  Proximity and availability of partners probably explains this same sex figure.  Nine respondents had their first experience prior to entering and seven whilst in the convent.  When asked if they were aware of sexual activity within the convent, 44% knew of activity among fellow Sisters, 54% with clergy, and 36% with lay people.  Again, data from the questionnaire showed, four women admitting to having had their first heterosexual intercourse while in the convent.  One woman had two partners and another had ten partners.

  Very few had any informed sexual knowledge prior to entering their communities. Caroline's story of the retreat priest exhorting them to refrain from french kissing was more typical of this group experience.  The fact that Caroline did not know what french kissing was, was also an accurate glimpse into the sexual development more common to this group.  In the general data, when asked if sexuality played a part in their decision to enter the convent 50% said it did, with 76% seeing it as an escape from sexuality.  Escape from sexuality and dysfunctional, alcoholic homes predominated as the reasons given to enter religious life.  The life demonstrated by the nuns to these young women was independent, respectful, peaceful and ordered.  They felt empowered and had life choices and options not available to them should they have remained in their family of origin, where female role models were, in their opinion, disrespected and disempowered.  A fundamental influence in most cases was silence around sexual subjects.  Silence, coupled with power of parents and priests, seems to have been a negative force in most cases.  When I began this study, I anticipated finding the influence of fathers to be paramount in the suppression of sexuality in the life history of the subjects.  Although in some cases this was true, as in Helen's and Sophia's stories, fathers were memorable for their alcoholism and physical abuses in the worst cases, yet overall, did not appear to have had traumatic effects on the women.  Ruth, June, Ann, Miriam, Marian, Josephine, Pamela, Hilary, Ursula, Ione, Kathleen and Maria, expressed stories of lasting pain experienced by them because of neglect or cruelty perpetrated by their mothers.  Mothers
appeared to be very much more prevalent as negative forces on these women, leaving life-long scars of painful criticism and perceived neglect.  I am reminded of Louisa May Alcott’s words, “What do girls do who haven't any mothers to help them through their troubles?”  Girls such as Ursula, Caroline and Kathleen were representatives of one end of the spectrum.  These were women who spent their lives searching for their mother's love and always wondering why they were not worthy of
it. Undoubtedly, a major force in these women's lives was their longing for a mother's love. Lua Xochitl's motherless infancy and childhood represented this forcefully.  For many, the affection and attention given to them by their nun teachers was the greatest force in their decision to enter the convents.  The kindness and devotion of these women predominated in the narratives.

  There was such a high incidence of perceived abuse and alcoholism in this group, that I had to look at the reason why I neglected to address the issue in my questionnaire, nor anticipated its prevalence in the interviews.  I came to the conclusion that silence and prohibition around sexual subjects was such a part of my own background that it was an unconscious denial and suppression on my part to avoid a forbidden topic.  Further, the image of the perfect family, where the children were expected to portray to the world “their best face” was I think, endemic to this type of background, thus enabling the abuses to
continue with impunity.  This behavior was amply illustrated in Chapter 4, particularly in Margaret's story.  She was the victim of incest by her brothers and friends from the age of four.  On entering the convent she said she was very lonely because she had a mental image that she came from the perfect family.  It took a long time before she saw how dysfunctional that thinking was.  I have had numerous conversations with therapists all around the country who have, and still are, working with religious men and women.  Their anecdotal reports, together with new empirical data from Chibnall, Wolf and Duckro (1996), plus other reports from abused nuns, convinces me that the subject has only just begun to be addressed and much more work
needs to be done in this area.  This group of women had done a lot of work on their own issues and continued to search for answers. As Josephine said, “The question was who is your therapist, not are you in therapy?”  Their attitude was one of enthusiasm to learn more about themselves and to help me to produce a document that would in turn give them more information.  As Pamela said, “After growing up in the Catholic Church, all the bad things they say about sex, that I don't believe, must be still inside me . After all these years it makes me pissed off and I want to learn more about sex, so that I can be more of a sexual person.”

  When they entered religious life, all but two of the young women continued in the same pattern as their family of origin, namely that of an autocratic, patriarchal environment.  Silence was the defined way of dealing with sexual issues in their childhood and this method was continued in the convent.  Personal friendships were strictly prohibited and any interaction on a one-to-one basis was denied.  The formation period was when the young women were totally isolated from family and the outside world.  The result for many was dependency, servility and subjugation, particularly with regard to their sexuality that was never allowed free expression.  The exceptions to this group were Ann and Sara.  Both women entered after Vatican II and both had very different novitiate experiences from that of the majority.  However, both were expected to follow the rule of chastity, and did so. All of the women repressed their sexuality to some degree whilst they were in the convent.

  To overcome dependency and sexual silence is never easy, especially in a world where the Superior's powers are maximal and the subordinate's power is minimal, and the required response to every order is complete obedience.  Very often the result is rebellion or a childlike, blind obedience.  Rebellion in this group took the form of physical illness.  As stated in Chapter 5, depression, general physical illness, anorexia and allergies were amongst those reported.  Understanding the root cause of these conditions appears to have evaded both Sister and Superiors.  None of those who had been in counseling told me that they had been advised to express their sexuality.  Two had been in some way molested by their priest therapists and yet remained in their orders for some time afterwards.  They did not tell me that they felt they had received the message that being sexual was healthy or permitted.  In some way the opposite message was somehow given, and it left the women feeling confused and guilty.

  The 1960’s saw many social upheavals.  Of particular importance to this group was Vatican II which demanded more personal accountability from every member of the community.  At the same time the feminist movement was further demanding women to claim their full place in society.  Several women referred to this fact during their stories when they said they entered in order to love more, not less, and to devote their lives to a higher calling. They told me that they would have joined the Peace Corps had it been available to them.  By entering religious life they thought they could devote themselves to a higher standard, because women they saw at home were not honored, and nuns were. A truth, for all but Ursula, was that the convent was a safe nurturing place. With very few exceptions they had only positive things to say about their Sisters and their communities.  Even those who had experienced severe illness so described their time within their communities.

  The struggle to stay in religious life whilst at the same time honoring their integrity and enjoying an open relationship, became very complicated for at least one subject.  Maria tried to live The Third Way (described in Chapter 6) which was an alternative to strict monasticism.  Sipe (1990, p. 98-99) discusses The Third Way in depth, along with the philosophy behind it, and attributes the founding of this philosophy to Dr. Eugene Kennedy, a former priest.  In a telephone interview on April 8,1998, Dr. Kennedy told me that he had written articles for different magazines in the 1960s and 70s, articulating his belief that human relationships were more important than any structure.  He felt that many religious men and women today tried to live this “high order,” deepening their personal relationships while working together within the Church.  He said

     I don't believe the Third Way is viable for most people…In 1966 or
     1970, I observed it and I interpreted it, but never proposed it.  I
     have always supported healthy relationships whether between priests and
     nuns or anyone else.  It is much better to have healthy relationships.

  Given the prevalence in my study of relationships between nuns and religious men, many were practicing the Third Way even though they did not label their actions as such.  Others had covert sexual relationships.  Some women rationalized that as long as they weren't genitally sexual it was acceptable behavior. Only one of these women did not adamantly assure me that no genital sex took place.  This self editing is in itself interesting. Those women who had same sex relationships, also avoided genital contact.  They fulfilled their sexual needs with kissing, cuddling and breast play.  In some cases they had developed enough of a sense of independence as to be able to take full responsibility without making any excuses or giving an explanation other than that was what they had done. They felt no guilt or conflict.  Wendy and Kate are in this category and were fully sexual whilst still under vows.  The group who were sexual within the convent, but left in order to be fully, i.e. genitally sexual (their definition), is a lot larger.  Marian, Miriam, Maria, Helen, Hilary, Pamela, Josephine, and Ione stated the fact that they needed to leave in order to have the freedom to express themselves sexually.

  Apart from Ione, who discovered her lesbian tendencies in her early years in religious life, all those who were sexual during their time in community began these relationships after they had been in for an average of 10 years. All held their relationships to be very special and retained in their memories with great warmth and delight.  Only in Maria's story did I detect some feelings of the relationship within the convent being somewhat one-sided.  She was giving pleasure to her priest friend, whilst receiving little sexual pleasure in return.  This disparity appears to have continued to some degree throughout their lives outside of religious life.

  For most of those women who left, married and had children, their sexual progression appears to have been in response to the needs and coaching of their husbands.  Reports often included such statements as, “he taught me,” “he showed me,” and “I learned from him,” amongst many others.  Pamela was an interesting case in that she married a man 12 years her junior who was a religious brother, yet he gave her sexual self-help books and was able to teach her.  Stephanie was the only member of the group to express boredom in her sex life, and this was mainly due to the inattention of her husband.  She displayed a healthy fantasy life, even though she rarely acted upon it with self-pleasure.  The remainder of the married women with children expressed great interest in sex.

  The struggle to merge sexuality and spirituality is a phenomenon particularly experienced by Catholic religious men and women.  Few other religions require this sacrifice.  Reflectively, the majority of this group did not declare a devout love of God as their primary reason for entering religious life.   However, they did find religious life sufficiently fulfilling to subjugate the full expression of their sexuality for, in some cases, as many as 30 years.  The average stay for this group was 13 years.  Those who remained in religious life beyond the novitiate, and took vows, saw the legitimate outlet of their sexuality to be in their work.  Those who only experienced their postulancy and part of the novitiate said that prayer and work occupied them totally.  All of those who stayed for many years stated their work was their passion.  As Maria said it was where they “were juiced.”  This, combined with strict discipline, was designed to control sexual urges.  Lua Xochitl said sexual energy went into cleaning floors and scrubbing and polishing and teaching school.  Maria spoke of getting some subliminal sexual pleasure by being on good friendly terms with her male students.  This was in her early days in the convent before she met the priest she was to fall in love with.  Spirituality became conflicted, as they became more sexually aware. The very anchor that was holding them to religious life began to slip.  The old message that sexuality was bad and dirty and can easily be repressed, worked for a time, using the tools they had learned in their youth.  Then they grew up in the convent and found sexuality within themselves, and for themselves.  Many spoke of the safe haven the convent provided for them.  It gave them time to think in a sex free environment, if that was what they chose.  They began to question the suppression.  Sara particularly argued the case for more sexual education with her Formation Directors.  It appeared that the need to freely express that part of them that could be called sexual became relentless.  Lua Xochitl discovered self-pleasure opened up her sexual world.  The others discovered their suppressed sexuality by meeting someone who ignited it.

  Ursula, whose life struggle had been to merge her sexuality with her spirituality, continued that struggle. I realized from our opening prayer together and the candles she burned as we spoke, the incredible depth to this woman's pain and the need to express her story.  I hope, in the reading of this work, she finds a little enlightenment and insight brought about by shared repression and pain of other participants.  However, she had spent the past 15 years nurturing herself , and is at a point where she is beginning to accept her body, and not see herself as “dirt of a pig” for honoring the beauty and the mystery of her nature.  She sees God as a loving and personal entity and, at 75 years old, very clearly illustrates how we as human beings bring terrible dishonor to ourselves when we do not claim our bodies, honor and accept our sexuality.  Because Catholic young people grew up with the message sex is bad, and in opposition to the good, which was spiritual, attempting to merge the two in a healthy lifestyle was very difficult for some.  I believe for a majority of the populace on this planet, sexuality is integral to our spiritual nature and is as important a component in making up a whole person.  Because of fragmenting at such an early age, many people have had to spend the rest of their lives trying to put the pieces back together again.

  I expected celibacy to be the vow that most women, who held sexuality to be very important to them, would claim as being the one with which they had most conflict. Although the freedom to be sexual was the reason most actually left, the vow most objected to was obedience.  In fact, this was the universal reason for leaving.  Some began to say chastity and then changed it to obedience.  It took a while for me to realize the reason behind this.  Poverty, Chastity and Obedience are the three vows taken.  If the nun is truly “Obedient,” all the others are controlled.  To maintain their integrity, they had to confess each transgression, and being sexual was defined by the majority as a transgression.  Maintaining their own sense of integrity was an issue stated in almost every interview.  Mary, who in her letter to Rome requesting release from her vows, cited her issues with celibacy as her reason for leaving.  Yet she qualified that when she told me she really could not live the rule of obedience.  On a wider level, all wanted to make decisions for themselves, keep their own money, live where they wanted and with whom they wanted.  Sara actually said celibacy was her greatest conflict, and reason for leaving, and in mid sentence changed it to obedience.

  I anticipated that a majority of the sample would have remained as practicing Catholics, with all that that title entailed.  This was not the case.  Of those who identified as Catholic, all have separated to some degree from the dictates of the Church, particularly where it concerned contraception.  In the general data, almost 100% agreed with a woman's right to control conception.  All of those practicing Catholics had some degree of concern about the organization of current Church practices.  The majority did not identify with what they thought was out-of-touch-Papal control.  Again, the majority had broken away from strict observances of the Church, yet had maintained a deep and residing personal spirituality.  These women expressed their spiritual growth as a continuing journey, one that they were still very active in researching. Many expressed concerns that the Catholic Church remains exclusively male driven with only a minor role for women within its structure.  Of those who related this male control to include sexual education, it was done so in angry terms.  Ursula's words about Catholic education around sexuality still echo in my mind when she said,  “I should circle this one with red blood! So many are still twisted because of that stinky education.”  I heard enough confusion and pain to agree with her.  Those women such as June, who saw herself helping her husband achieve the Deacon's position and then having to accept the role of “dresser” and helpmate, are very justifiably angry at the inappropriate high handedness of the Church.  However, they submit because there is no alternative.  Therefore, although there were representatives of the modern Catholic woman among the participants of this study, the majority had denounced the Church of their childhood on most levels.  If participating at all, then it was on a modified version of their own choosing and with a great deal of their own variations.  Most of those modifications were surrounding the impact of the Church's teaching on sexuality and personal marital relations, where they felt the Church had no place.

  Sexual patterning is clearly shown to have changed dramatically in most cases during the transitions.  Furthermore, those changes appear to be continuing.  A case in point here is Wendy's story.  When I met this woman I was at the point of choosing my doctoral topic.  Wendy self defined as heterosexual having had one sexual relationship with a priest and no same sex relationship up to that time; she was 50 years old and had been out of the convent for two years.  I eventually interviewed her one year later.  At that point in her life she had begun her first love affair with a woman and was totally open to the fact that she would probably self define as bisexual from then on.  The striking point of this story is the open attitude of a woman this age, with such a background.  This is one major trait common to the majority of the group.  Open-minded and non-judgmental would be how I would describe them.  In some sense it is a phenomenon best described by Wendy when she said: “I just felt way more comfortable with sex because I was a nun, wasn't that weird?”  Lua Xochitl said something similar when speaking about her experience at the weekend workshop which so changed her life.  She found the nuns to be far more sexually open and avant-garde than the general populace at that workshop.  I felt surprised and honored that so many trusted me with their stories and were willing to speak as candidly as they did on the issue of their sexuality.  This is a highly educated group of women with the data showing 86% having attended graduate school. It had been a serious concern to me, given the retrospective quality of this research, that incidents may have been remembered that could have caused discomfort for the women.  This was not the case. The emotional strength of this group has been extraordinary.

  This has not been a purely intellectual pursuit.  It began as such, a means to an end, that of earning a Ph.D.  But it became much more. This is a work from my heart.  The findings of this research have changed my own life-long perceptions of women who were nuns.  These life histories have been extraordinary, given the religious background the women came from.  The sexual development has been truly impressive.

  In conclusion, I feel very sincerely that women need to recognize, nurture and honor themselves to achieve wholeness.  No part of that humanity can we afford to ignore or dishonor.  Spirituality and sexuality are conjoined for many people in order for them to be fully human, and we must find peace and honor in both.  There may be some dedicated men and women for whom a celibate, ascetic life is fulfilling.  How those people honor their sexuality would be the topic of another dissertation.  However, as has been illustrated very clearly from the narratives, the practice in any system of taking young women (or men) from a childhood of indoctrination and expecting them to make life long commitments and vows in their early 20’s is wrong.  Many may be called but few choose to be chosen.

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